Discussing a massacre: Virtual book club to analyze 1921 Tulsa event over three days

Michael D. Smith
Murray State College Library Director Stephen Finlay talks about a book club during a Zoom meeting Friday. He said the idea of a collaborative book club came from a former job in South Bend, Indiana.

Next May, Oklahoma will mark a century since one of the darkest chapters in its fairly short history. About 140 miles south of Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, staff at Murray State College and the Johnston County Library will soon be preparing Oklahomans for the anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre.

“Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre” will be the topic of a virtual book club led by area professors and the book’s author beginning next week. MSC students at the University Center of Southern Oklahoma will have resources available locally to participate, while the general public will still be able to take advantage of the event’s virtual nature.

Dr. Nicholas Timmerman, professor of history at Langston University, will provide historical background on Sept. 15. Dr. Ken Hada, professor of English at East Central University, will be the discussion leader on Oct. 6. Book author Randy Krehbiel is scheduled to wrap up the discussion on Oct. 27.

Michael Henthorn, branch manager at the Johnston County Library, has organized book clubs with participants from as far away as Arizona and Florida. This will be his library’s first collaboration with the Murray State College library, but not his first book club using Zoom teleconferencing.

“Zoom really gives you the option to open up,” he said on Friday.

For a discussion topic, he and MSC Library Director Stephen Finlay landed on the 1921 riot in the prosperous Tulsa district of Black residents that left potentially hundreds dead and thousands homeless. According to The Washington Post, the search for mass graves continues even during the pandemic.

Finlay knew the subject would be important for two reasons. “One, it’s an incredibly tragic, extraordinary event. And two, it’s one that I don’t feel like enough people know a lot about,” Finlay said.

Dr. Rebecca Jacobs-Pollez, a history professor at Murray State College and discussion organizer, agreed that not many Oklahomans are familiar with one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history.

“It seems to be ignored. I don’t know if it’s because it was something bad and people don’t want to talk about it,” she said. 

Organizers of the book club selected discussion leaders for various reasons. Timmerman was selected as a professor from Oklahoma’s only historically Black college or university.

“A professor from Langston is going to give them a different point of view than they’re going to get from any other school around here,” said Jacobs-Pollez. “The students will hear something that they probably haven’t heard in this area, and I think that’s going to be important also.”

Hada, who has participated in other book discussions at the Johnston County Library, was selected as a Native American author and professor. According to Henthorn, Hada also uses the events of 1921 in an ethnic writing class at ECU.

Krehbiel wrote the book, which was published in 2019, after analyzing the event’s history through newspaper coverage from the time. He is expected to provide finer details about research and writing the book.

“This book’s got a lot of really disturbing details,” said Jacobs-Pollez. “He talks about the horrors that actually happened, and hopefully that’s eye opening.” 

MSC students in Tishomingo and Ardmore will have access to copies of the book through their campus libraries. Finlay said the school’s Cultural Events Committee purchased several copies of the book for the library.

Henthorn said Friends of the Johnston County Library also purchased several copies, and copies from other Southern Oklahoma Library System branches have been forwarded to his Tishomingo location.

About half of the copies were already checked out from the Johnston County Library on Friday, and Henthorn expects other copies to be checked out quickly.

“Anything we can do to help broaden horizons is a good thing,” Henthorn said.

For those interested in participating in the book club can email mhenthorn@southernoklibrarysystem.org. Links to the Zoom meeting will be emailed to participants in the days leading up to the first meeting on Sept. 15.